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A Son’s Tribute

July 2024
11min read

Three long-lost paintings of Washington in action (above, at Germantown) were part of G.W.P. Custis’ lifelong effort to glorify the foster father he adored

In 1953, at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia, three large paintings of Revolutionary War scenes were offered for sale. They were obviously the work of an untrained hand, and in all three the mounted figure of George Washington was the lotus of the somewhat primitive composition. The battles they depicted were not identified with any certainly, no one knew when they had been painted, and the name of ihe artist was not given. The crowd at Freeman’s showed litlle interest in the battle scenes, and the bidding was sluggish. They were finally sold to an agent representing Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell Gardiner, antiques dealers of Stamford, Connecticut. The price for the three was $600. Hut as soon as the Gardiners saw the paintings they felt certain that they had made a discovery of historic importance. For they suspected thai lhe lhtce paintings were from the hand of George Washington Parke Custis and that the canvases of red and green and gold spoke of an extraordinary link between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Few men in American history have so completely bridged the gap between iwo eras, touched with their own hands two distant epochs, as did Custis. He was the adopted son of one great Virginian, the “Father of His Country,” who made the union of the American colonies possible, and the father-in-law of another, who led lhe armies of the rebellion against that union, which lie felt had become oppressive.

Custis’ father, John Parke Custis, the son of Martha Washington by her first marriage, died of “camp fever” in the closing hours of the Revolution, leaving four young children. George Washington—who had rushed’ from Yorktown to be at the dying man’s bedside—announced on the spot (so it is said), “I adopt the two younger children as my own.” George Custis was then six months old; the other child adopted by Washington, Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis, was about two years older. Their mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis, a granddaughter of the fifth Lord Baltimore, was quite able to take care of them, but she consented to the wishes of the childless Washingtons, who longed to have children at Mount Vernon.

“Little Wash,” or “Tub,” as he was called, was America’s first presidential child. Living with the first First Family when the federal capital was in New York and in Philadelphia, he met all the great men who came to visit the President and was fourteen when he saw Washington lay the cornerstone of the Capitol. He adored the General, and all his life gloried in the epithet, “the child of Mount Vernon.” After Washington’s death in 1799, he continued to live there with his eminent grandmother until she died in 1802.

Custis, then a young man of twenty-one, moved to Arlington—or Mount Washington as he first tailed it—a tract of more than 1,000 acres, once his father’s property, across the Potomac from the federal city. There he began to build a mansion (hat would be, above all, a shrine to George Washington. In its final form it was just that, a temple with eight heroic Doric columns that still dominates the view across (he Potomac into Virginia. “It gives the impression,” Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, “of being built to be looked at, rather lhan to be lived in.” To it young Custis brought many of the Washington family portraits, the lantern from the hall of Mount Vernon, a set of china presented to the first President by the Society of the Cincinnati, pieces of Washington’s furniture, his camp equipment, his deathbed, and even the Negro maid who had been in the room when he died.

But the master of Arlington was not content to be merely a curator of memorabilia, preserving Washington’s memory like some glorious thing trap|)ed in amber. His position as a gentleman farmer of independent means gave him the time to use his talents to add to the Washington legend. He was among the first to write plays on native American subjects, and the theme was almost invariably American patriotism as Custis believed Washington would have wanted it expressed. In addition, every year on Washington’s birthday he contributed an article to the National Intelligencer , a leading newspaper published in the capital. His subject, of course, was his “recollections” of the Pater Patriae . Amazingly enough, he found something new to say on the subject every February 22 for thirty long years.

His voice was quite as ready as his pen to serve the cause of his hero on any national holiday, especially the Glorious Fourth, in fact, it was so ready that he earned for himself the sobriquet “the inevitable Custis.” On one such occasion his verbal stamina was blamed for the death of a President. It was July 4, 1850, and Zachary Taylor, a man well into his sixties, remained for some time in a very hot sun to listen to a Custis peroration. That night the President, undoubtedly in desperate need of refreshment, ate a great quantity of fresh cherries and drank a great deal of iced milk. He took sick and five days later died. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, but there were unkind souls who blamed it all on Custis. He was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.

Custis was not one to permit the influence of Washington to stop at the water’s edge. He saw in every struggle for national independence—in Ireland, in Greece, in Poland—a reflection of America’s own Spirit of ’76, and when these causes needed a spokesman, he was ready. Irish independence was particularly close to his heart—perhaps because of the memory of the struggle of his Catholic Calvert ancestors for religious liberty. It is recorded that for twenty-seven years he appeared at St. Patrick’s Day banquets dressed in a green frock coat, playing the role of, as he termed it, “the old orator for young Ireland.” He hoped for only one thing in return, that “years after my mortal body shall have been laid in the bosom of our common mother, some honest Irish heart may come, and dropping a shamrock on my grave, say ‘God Bless him.’” To this day, on every March 17 Irish fraternal orders do just that.

But was there not some further way for Custis to show his love and admiration for Washington? There was: he would record on canvas the General’s greatest military exploits. Though it is likely that Custis received some instruction from the artist William Dunlap, who taught his sister Nelly, his training was at best sketchy. He freely admitted that he was “but the artist of nature, without science or instruction.” However, Custis made up in amplitude what he lacked in skill. As early as 1809 he supervised the preparation of a forty-foot allegorical painting in tribute to Washington, for display in the ballroom of Caton’s Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. And for several years he worked on a large canvas of Washington at the Battle of Trenton, which was finally completed in 1836 and was hung in the United States Capitol. Its rank amateurishness caused such an outcry from congressmen that Custis ordered his agent to remove it.

Undiscouraged, he continued his painting. In 1853, Benson J. Lossing, that Samuel Pepys of American history, happened to be in Washington for the inauguration of Franklin Pierce. Lossing had been in correspondence with Custis, and he was invited to visit Arlington. Never one to let an opportunity slip by unused, Lossing published an account of his visit in the September, 1853, number of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine . Among the matters he described in great detail were his host’s Revolutionary battle paintings. By that time there were at least six, and Lossing named them: Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, Monmouth, Washington at Yorktown , and the Surrender at Yorktown . Lossing says that Custis had painted the pictures in the five years previous to his visit to Arlington and that he was still working on the Surrender at Yorktown . Even more important for the subsequent history of the paintings, as it turned out, was the fact that Lossing had engravings made of all six to illustrate his article in Harper’s .

Lossing had seen Arlington at the zenith of its glory. Custis was seventy-two and was adored by the seven children of his daughter, Mary, the wife of the Superintendent of West Point, Colonel Robert E. Lee. Within four years Custis would be dead and buried on the estate he loved; within eight, Arlington, the shrine of Washington and the home of the Custis-Lee family, would be a prize for strangers.

For when on the momentous night of April 19, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned from the United States Army, he just as certainly resigned possession of the great house in which he wrote his resignation. He knew that Arlington, from which he could see the still-unfinished Capitol dome, would not long remain out of Federal hands. Three days later Lee left for Richmond. (He would see Arlington only once more—from a train, after the war, when he was on his way home after testifying before a congressional committee.) Mrs. Lee remained, but on April 26 Lee wrote to her: “You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety, which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured.” In a rush, pictures and other possessions were dispatched to various places of safety: to the homes of friends and relatives, to a warehouse, and to an art dealer in Alexandria; guns and clothing were sent to Lee in Richmond; the family silver was placed in a trunk which was eventually buried in Lexington, Virginia—where, ironically enough, Lee and his wife ended up after the war. Left behind when Mrs. Lee quit the house early in May were many of the Washington relics gathered over the years by her father. Carefully packed and clearly marked, the various items were placed in the attic and cellar. There is no record of whether the Custis paintings were among them, or whether they were sent elsewhere for safekeeping. All that is known for certain is that they had been in the house as late as 1859, when Mrs. Lee mentioned them in a memoir of her father.

About a week after Mrs. Lee’s departure, Federal forces crossed the river and Arlington became the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. During the first months of the occupation the house was pretty thoroughly looted, even though guards were assigned to protect it. They must not have taken their duty very seriously, for it is reported that a visiting doctor had a sofa carried away. The Washington relics did not escape the general pilfering. In 1862 those that were left were transported to the Patent Office and displayed under a sign which read “Captured at Arlington.” The estate was seized by the Federal government in 1864 for nonpayment of a special wartime real-estate tax of $92.07.

In June of that year two hundred acres of Arlington were set aside as a military cemetery. But because the cemeteries in the Washington area had already become crowded with the dead from Bull Run, Chantilly, and other Virginia battlefields, burials had taken place on the estate before then. During the remaining months of the war, hundreds of Union and Confederate dead were buried on the grounds of Arlington, and the place began to take on the character of the great national shrine to American war dead which it has since become.

Immediately following the Civil War, the house, which had once been famous for its associations with Washington, began to attract thousands of pilgrims because of its associations with Robert E. Lee. Those who came found its rooms bare and neglected: a few were used by the cemetery superintendent for offices, and a few served to house the tools of the gravedigger.

Finally, in 1925, with the bitterness of the Civil War fading, Congress passed a law providing that Arlington House be made into a memorial to Robert E. Lee. In 1933, efforts to restore the mansion to its antebellum appearance were intensified when responsibility for it was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service. High on the list of objects which the Service hoped would be returned to Arlington were the six Custis paintings described by Lossing and mentioned in Mrs. Lee’s memoir.

No clue to the whereabouts of any of the paintings turned up until 1953, when the Gardiners bought the three Revolutionary battle scenes from Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia. The Gardiners’ suspicion that their three paintings were by Custis arose because they already owned a small painting attributed to him. This was the portrayal of a minor Revolutionary War episode, The Escape of Sergeant Champe , on the back of which was a badly defaced portrait of Custis and the scrawled notation, “Found in attic of General Lee’s residence at Arlington.” The painting, along with two letters by Daniel Parke Custis, George Washington Parke Custis’ grandfather, and a chipped platter from the Mount Vernon Cincinnati service that had belonged to Custis, had been bought by the Gardiners out of the estate of a Connecticut Civil War veteran. All had obviously been looted from Arlington. The style of the small painting was strikingly similar to that of the three large battle pictures.

Even better proof of the hand that painted them was the inescapable similarity between the three paintings and the engravings of the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown that had accompanied Benson Lossing’s article in Harper’s Monthly . Allowing for the improvements which the skilled engraver made in Custis’ primitive work, it was clear that the paintings were the originals for Lossing’s illustrations.

There was a final step to be taken if their authenticity was to be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt: comparison with the one painting in existence which was unquestionably the work of “the inevitable Custis.” This was the Washington at Yorktown which hangs in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Temple in Alexandria. Custis gave this painting in 1812 to Alexandria’s Masonic lodge, of which his foster father had been Master. Custis’ gift and the fact that the painting was by him are mentioned in the minutes of the lodge for that year. There is an additional mention of the painting in the minutes of 1857, the year in which Custis died.

In 1959, the Gardiners loaned their three pictures to the National Park Service laboratory for study. A team of experts compared the age of the three canvases, the type of paint on them, and the brush strokes with those of the painting at the Masonic Memorial Temple. The laboratory concluded that the Gardiners’ three paintings and the Washington at Yorktown had been executed by the same hand.

But where had the Gardiners’ acquisitions come from? How had three of the six lost Custis paintings suddenly appeared at an auction in Philadelphia nearly a century after they had last been seen at Arlington? They had, it turned out, been put up for sale by Mrs. G. Dawson Coleman of Philadelphia, who had bought them through a friend from an Alexandria antiques dealer about 1924. The price, she remembered, had been $150 each. She had not seen the paintings when she bought them, and the artist had not been identified. Mrs. Coleman purchased them simply because at the time she needed three large, colorful paintings for her home. When she moved into a smaller house in 1953, she put them up for sale at Freeman’s.

As soon as one knows that the paintings were sold in Alexandria in the igao’s, a dozen conjectures and questions spring to mind. If they were sold by some member of the Lee family, why did he not capitalize on the Custis connection? Even though Custis never signed his work, a member of the family would hardly be likely to have forgotten where the paintings originated. There was some controversy early in this century among the Lees over rightful ownership of pictures and furniture scattered among various family houses. Were the paintings then placed on the market by a member of the family who was willing to sacrifice the extra money that the Custis name would bring, in order to assure an anonymous sale?

One thing is certain. If they had been stolen from Arlington by a Union soldier it is very unlikely that they would have been in Virginia in the twenties. And we know that many of the Lee servants took things from the house after their mistress fled. Their descendants still living in the vicinity might well have had the paintings and not been aware of their value. Or if the paintings had not been collected from the warehouse or the art dealer in Alexandria after the Civil War, they might easily have passed into the hands of someone who did not know of their connection with Arlington. But all such conjectures must go unresolved, all such questions unanswered.

We know only that three of the Custis paintings have suddenly come to light and are now in a bank vault in Connecticut. The dirt and grime that had accumulated over the long years have been expertly removed and now their colors shine as brightly as they must have when Mrs. Lee hung the paintings high up in the front hall of Arlington. The National Park Service would dearly like to have them back in their original setting. The current asking price for the paintings is far beyond the reach of the Service, but it hopes that somehow they will be returned to the Custis-Lee mansion. When they are, it can be truly said that the family has come back to Arlington. It would undoubtedly delight Custis to know what a stir his canvases have caused more than a hundred years after his death. It would probably please him as much as the shamrocks which are still dropped on his grave.

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